Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s problems would have seemed far-fetched less than a year ago. Then the president, widely known as Jokowi, was celebrated for his democratic credentials and hailed as Indonesia’s first leader from outside the Suharto-era elite. Now, critics and supporters alike are wondering how secure Indonesia actually is from authoritarian backsliding.

The catalyst for this reversal was Jokowi’s mid-July announcement of an expansion of his government’s discretionary power to ban civil society organizations. Although the move is intended to project strength by taking on the Islamic groups that brought down his political ally Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta, the ban threatens freedom of association for all citizens and is unlikely to make him more secure. It also has prompted growing criticism and concern about an otherwise popular leader. 


By mid-2016, Jokowi—the furniture-salesman-turned-politician who was then in his second year in office—was cruising. A highly popular figure, he had seemingly mastered national politics. He was finally at peace with his party and political patron, and he had cannily wielded his power to elicit friendly leadership in several other parties. Laser-focused on his standing in opinion polls, willing to cede extensive ground on almost anything beyond his narrow policy interests, and deeply occupied with criss-crossing the archipelago to cut ribbons in front of roads, ports, and projects, Jokowi cut a studied and cautious political figure.

To be fair, Jokowi had yet to deliver on his pre-election promises to resolve outstanding human rights cases, reform the judiciary and civil service, and lead the country unburdened by elite actors and institutions left over from three decades of military rule. But despite the disappointments, Jokowi hardly seemed likely to tip Indonesia back toward dark authoritarianism not seen since the fall of President Muhammad Suharto in 1998. Indeed, up until mid-2016, he had delivered workaday, if not spectacular, leadership.

Jokowi’s perceived insecurity is evident in his approach to Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia.

But then, beginning in late 2016, came a series of reversals. First there was the Jakarta gubernatorial election and Ahok’s offhand comments about Islam, prompting Islamist groups to organize several large anti-Ahok demonstrations in the capital city. Jokowi reacted poorly, moving too late to head off the growing campaign against his ally (and by proxy, himself) and then compensating through clumsy and ill-advised moves to undermine the growing disquiet. Today, although in some ways the older Jokowi is still on the scene—pushing his agenda of infrastructure spending and boosting access to health care and education for rural, lower-class voters—in other ways, the focused, assured tactician has disappeared. 


Jokowi’s perceived insecurity is evident in his approach to Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the local branch of a transnational Islamist organization that seeks to establish a caliphate through nonviolent tactics. HTI was established underground during the 1980s, but moved into the mainstream after the end of military rule. Many—Westerners as well as Indonesians—might balk at HTI’s agenda, but the group has in recent years developed strong networks among political leaders and civil servants.

HTI provoked Jokowi by playing a prominent role in an aggressive, and at times ugly, campaign against Ahok. The Jakarta governor had made an offhand remark about the Koran while campaigning for reelection, prompting Islamist hardliners to call for his prosecution for blasphemy. Armed with financial and logistical support from opposition figures who were keen to be rid of one of Jokowi’s closest political allies, a coalition of Islamic groups, including HTI, convened mass demonstrations in central Jakarta on a scale not seen since Suharto’s fall. In April, Ahok lost his bid for reelection. The next month, he was convicted for blasphemy.

Soon after Ahok’s conviction, the government pledged to ban Hizbut Tahrir. In mid-July it showed how it would do so: through a rarely used instrument of executive authority, a perppu, or “regulation in lieu of law.”  

The perppu revises a 2013 law, the Social Organizations Law, mandating that all social organizations adhere to Indonesia’s foundational ideology, pancasila, which emphasizes national unity and a belief in God. The result of more than a year of contentious debate in the legislature, the Social Organizations Law laid out steps, such as official warnings and consultations, that the government was required to take before seeking judicial approval to ban an organization. The perppu deletes most of these clauses, which were inserted specifically to allay discomfort over excessive executive authority. In effect, Jokowi’s perppu invests his government with immense power to ban any group it deems to have violated pancasila.  

Jokowi at the Indian presidential palace in New Delhi, December 2016.
Adnan Abidi / Reuters


Perhaps unintentionally, the perppu exposes the president to potentially risky confrontations with the legislature and the Constitutional Court. Experts such as the political scientist Greg Fealy regard the new powers as a risk to civil society, political dissent, and freedom of association. In Jakarta the perppu has provoked widespread concern, and its illiberalism has already alienated many mainstream civil society groups—not just the nettlesome Islamists the measure was intended to warn off. And in overhauling the Social Organizations law—the outcome of a recent democratic process explicitly designed to check executive power—Jokowi handed his political opponents an opportunity to undermine him, as the legislature is required to approve the perppu within six months for it to remain in legal force.

Hizbut Tahrir, with strong networks and a credible track record of non-violence, is not likely to take things lying down. It has met with senior politicians and engaged a prominent lawyer and ex-minister, Yusril Ihza Mahendra, to launch a challenge to the measure in the Constitutional Court. Predicting the court’s decisions is always difficult, but while it has always upheld laws enforcing secularism in the past, its decisions have also indicated a growing concern about public opinion, which, given the illiberal character of Jokowi’s actions, could be used to mobilize public support for HTI. The perppu is already being presented as anti-Islam, further raising the stakes. Perhaps most damaging is what expert on Indonesian law Tim Lindsey has said is the perppu’s potential for “turning Islamists into civil-rights heroes,” as anti-pluralist Islamist groups and liberal civil society organizations are thrust into an awkward alliance against executive overreach.

The perppu exposes the president to potentially risky confrontations with the legislature and the Constitutional Court.

Jokowi’s reaction indicates just how seriously he and his advisors, many of who belong to the old guard, take the threat from the groups that mobilized against Ahok. Although the campaign was nominally directed at the governor and exploited his double minority status as both a Christian and an ethnic Chinese, its ultimate target was Jokowi, Ahok’s former running mate and chief political protector. Ahok’s removal, and replacement with Anies Baswedan, a youthful politician allied with Jokowi’s opponents, was thus a significant coup for Hizbut Tahrir and its allies. Although Baswedan may not himself run for president, Jokowi’s political position has become more precarious.


But is Jokowi really under serious threat? Probably not. He remains popular, with more than two-thirds of voters satisfied with his performance. He is still the favorite for the election in 2019, with a healthy head-to-head lead over his main rival, Prabowo Subianto, whom he defeated in 2014. The tactics deployed against Ahok—which involved stirring up anti-Chinese and anti-Christian sentiment—would require modification to succeed against Jokowi, a Muslim from Indonesia’s largest and most politically dominant ethnic group. In 2014, a whisper campaign questioning Jokowi’s religion failed. It would be even less likely to succeed now, given the public’s widespread familiarity with the president and his faith.

In fact, as I argued after Ahok’s defeat and conviction, the risk Jokowi could bring upon himself by lashing out against HTI far exceeded any threat that the group could credibly pose to him or the Indonesian state. As predicted, the president’s overreaction threatens to detract from his considerable strength.

Jokowi’s missteps have not, however, been limited to the move against Hizbut Tahrir; also in July, for example, he conspicuously supported the passage of a law establishing a high threshold—20 percent, assessed in terms of support from political parties in the legislature—for presidential nominations in 2019. This was a remarkable decision by a popular president who does not control the political party he represents, which has at times offered him only tenuous support. Instead, the decision is further evidence of an increasingly rattled and authoritarian leader.

A nominating threshold was used in previous elections, but its maintenance may prompt yet another constitutional challenge because of a 2014 constitutional court ruling that presidential and legislative elections must be run simultaneously. Because of this, if a threshold were used in 2019, the eligibility of the presidential field would be based on the 2014 election results. It would be difficult for Jokowi to argue the democratic merits of assessing presidential eligibility on the basis an election held five years prior. Although a high threshold might save him from a crowded field, such a move seems unnecessary for a candidate who is far and away the most recognized and popular politician in the country. 


Jokowi’s apparently strong position prompts the question of why he is not more self-assured. Indeed, his seemingly unaccountable fear mirrors that of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY), who even at the height of his popularity suffered from an excess of caution. Both men were obsessed with the specter of impeachment, which they saw as a grave threat despite Indonesia’s high procedural barriers to it. Absent a serious crime, it was and is essentially impossible to muster the large majorities necessary in two legislative houses to impeach the president. Nevertheless, the fear remains. 

Some are already looking ahead to Jokowi’s potential second term with hope—as they did with SBY. Optimists argue that once a second term is secured, a bolder and more reformist politician will emerge. In SBY’s case, such a politician never arrived. In his second term, he became even more circumspect and wedded to the status quo. 

With Jokowi looking as if he will go down the same road (somewhat ahead of schedule), outside observers should consider whether the change—from boldness to timidity—says less about the man and more about the nature of politics in Indonesia, where even with the rapid and largely successful democratic change of recent years, the memories of political disorder remain fresh. Power is more complex and informal than it may appear, and when presented with threats to their power, leaders reflexively seek protection in past authoritarian models. Although the new democratic institutions have enabled the meteoric rise of Jokowi, a figure from outside the Suharto-era elite, they have yet to reconcile fully with the country’s equivocal political past.

If his attempt to ban Hizbut Tahrir and other Islamist groups fails to pass either legislative approval or constitutional review, Jokowi will have brought upon himself a pointless political defeat. In the process, he will have damaged what his supporters see as one of his most valuable attributes—his detachment from Indonesia’s authoritarian past.  

An earlier version of this article referred to a 2013 ruling that presidential and legislative elections must be run simultaneously. That ruling was in 2014.

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